The Louisiana Legislature convenes this week for its annual session, and that means another showdown looms between science and politics. So far, politics is winning.
But that doesn't deter Zack Kopplin, the college freshman who, as a high school student last year, took on Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) and others promoting the teaching of creationism in Louisiana public schools.
Kopplin is once again leading a charge to repeal the grossly misnamed Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). The act was passed in 2008 and signed into law by Jindal, who majored in biology at Brown University and once dreamed of becoming a doctor.
It's telling that Jindal's genetics professor urged him to veto the law in 2008, arguing it would harm Louisiana students who, like Jindal did at one time, aspire to become doctors. Jindal, who is the darling of right-wing religious fundamentalists in the GOP, happily signed the bill into law and continues to defend it as a tool of "critical thinking." Kopplin has deftly pointed out that the essence of scientific thought is, um, critical thinking. The essence of creationism is faith.
I'm not knocking faith. I consider myself a spiritual person. I also aspire to be a critical thinker, which long ago led me to conclude that faith and critical thinking are intellectual bookends. It's possible, even desirable, to have both — but it's folly to think you can blend them — or wield one to defeat the other. Of course, folly is the playground of politicians.
Which brings me to the LFF, a right wing nonprofit with stated religious goals, but which functions chiefly as a lobbying firm for fundamentalist causes. Most state lawmakers kowtow to LFF rather than risk being labeled "anti-family" or "anti-God." More folly.
Kopplin, the son of New Orleans Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, now has 75 Nobel laureates supporting the move to repeal the LSEA. State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, is once again authoring a repeal measure (Senate Bill 374). Peterson filed a similar bill last year, but it died in committee. The Senate Education Committee likely will hear the bill again. After last year's statewide elections, the committee has a new chair and several new members, but the repeal effort still faces an uphill fight.
Critics of the LSEA maintain it is just a ruse for teaching creationism in public schools. Supporters of the law — chiefly LFF and similar groups — point to seemingly innocuous language in the bill calling for "supplemental materials" to be used in science classes that will allow students to engage in "critical thinking" about scientific topics, including evolution.
Although Kopplin and Peterson failed to repeal the law last year, Kopplin succeeded in convincing the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE)'s Textbook Advisory Council to maintain science textbooks that teach, well, science. Kopplin has called that decision "the largest victory for science that Louisiana has had in eight years." But he says the real victory will be repeal of the LSEA.
In a press release last week, Kopplin noted that the 75 Nobel laureates supporting repeal of the LSEA represent "nearly 40 percent of all living Nobel laureate scientists in physics, chemistry, or physiology or medicine." Peterson notes in the same release that Jindal "has asked the Louisiana Legislature to focus on education. If this legislative session is truly about improving Louisiana's education system, then the first place to start is to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act."
Now that Kopplin is in college, other high school students have joined the repeal effort. Here's hoping the next generation of critical thinkers can overcome the folly of today's generation of so-called leaders.